The last time I applied for food stamps was 2004. I'd just been laid off and found I was pregnant with my second child, the same week (the pregnancy was planned, the layoff, a total surprise). My husband, ever the patriot and would-be-provider, signed up for the Army Reserves. His pay in basic training was pitiful; but with my $1,000 a month freelance income, too much for our family of three to qualify for public assistance. Shortly thereafter, I got a "real" job, and our income quickly vaulted out of range.

Here in 2009, I was once again back to freelancing, this time making quite a bit more -- more than double my monthly income in 2004. I could pay the mortgage, and the power bill, but with my husband under-employed the groceries were straining us. And now we had three little ones. I was wowed to discover that we qualified for food stamps, augmented (surprisingly) by the economic stimulus package. The average family of four gets $80 extra, so I assume our total was boosted by about $100 over what it would have been in March.
From the middle classes, food stamps doesn't sound like a great way to stimulate the economy. People would have bought food anyway -- right? They're just, as we sometimes did, putting off paying their utilities and cable bill in order to get food in their children's tummies, yes?

But when families who are just getting by suddenly have riches in food cash to spend, they spend it on good food. Like local produce from the farmer's market (all Portland's farmer's markets take food stamps and we spend over half of our monthly allotment there). And more foods from local produce marts and local chains.

It's paying off in stimulus: Food stamp dollars have a big impact. According to the Wall Street Journal, the U.S. Department of Agriculture calculates that for every $5 of food-stamp spending, there is $9.20 of total economic activity. Several sources say this may be even more when those dollars are spent on locally-grown or locally-processed foods.

As more and more farmers improve their ability to accept food stamps; a few of the fruit vendors at my local farmer's markets now have swipe machines at their booths, allowing me to buy organic broccoli and apples other good things to can for the winter so my family can eat local organic produce year-round, and the WSJ spotlights how Iowa farmers have done the same thing; food stamps become a more effective stimulus. And not just for the local economies, but for the health and well-being of low-income families.

We'll only qualify for food stamps through September, when my husband is deployed to Iraq, and our family income will be comfortably above the qualifying minimum (unless he gets a job in the interim). And while I still feel there is a stigma attached to using government assistance, I'm proud to use these dollars to support local farmers and cheesemakers and ranchers and bakers who are working so hard to provide nutritious, passionately good food.

I believe that money given to lower-income families so they can eat sustainable, local, pesticide-free and humanely-grown food is not just good politics but the most efficient stimulus out there. And the better it's used, the less we'll spend on health care. It may be a liberal viewpoint, but I believe it's true. What do you think?

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